Wolf Lake

A sinister series that melds "X-Files" creepiness with B-movie chills, CBS' "Wolf Lake" gets it right when it focuses on the beasts, but the humans could use a little work.

Graham Greene, Lou Diamond Phillips

A sinister series that melds “X-Files” creepiness with B-movie chills, CBS’ “Wolf Lake” gets it right when it focuses on the beasts, but the humans could use a little work. George Romero would love this — the entire premise revolves around people who can morph into animals — though auds may not be so kind, especially since it’s an odd entry that airs opposite drama heavyweights “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order” at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays. Then again, never underestimate the drawing power of fangs and fright.

Pilot has undergone serious re-tooling, with the addition of castmembers (Sharon Lawrence and Mia Kirshner were late arrivals) and sexier scenes. The finished product is quite a mixture, a dark and disturbing creature-filled soap opera that sometimes works as high drama but sometimes comes off as extremely silly. As for the “weird” factor, it’s hardly the second coming of “Twin Peaks,” but the debut hour preps viewers for a constant parade of whacked-out characters, murky nights, shadowy villains … and a lot of howling.

Seattle detective John Kanin (Lou Diamond Phillips) is searching for his fiancee, Ruby (Kirshner). The happy couple had just gotten engaged, when she disappeared following a vicious attack in her car. Unable to find a body, John follows an anonymous tip that leads him to the small title town, where he encounters nonstop resistance from locals.

First to raise a red flag is Sheriff Matthew Donner (Tim Matheson), who gives John bad clues and leads him to all of the wrong places. Convinced that Sheriff Donner is out to railroad him or hide something, John decides to stick around, ask questions and shake up the community.

And there are certainly enough reasons to stay: Sheriff Donner’s daughter Sofia (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) shows signs of animal behavior; Ruby’s parents, Vivian (Lawrence) and Willard (Bruce McGill), are stoic figureheads who miss their daughter but seem to have moved on; and science teacher Sherman Blackstone (Graham Greene) apparently knows more about Ruby’s disappearance than he’s willing to share.

While John’s progress is slow, the city’s politics become evident. Willard’s position as the town’s wealthy industrialist is challenged by Tyler Creed (Scott Bairstow), a real estate developer having an affair with Vivian. It’s one of many struggles for supremacy that services the show’s backdrop but feels old-hat, considering its more unique and spooky aspects.

Series’ strength is certainly its look; director Bryan Spicer and lenser Barry Donlevy have created a mysterious, fictional city — it was filmed in Vancouver — and the atmosphere is complemented nicely by bizarre behavior. Dialogue, scripted by exec producers Alex Gansa and Rick Kellard, is low-key, and the potential for non-stop eerieness is obvious.

Perfs are a mixed bag. Phillips is solid as the forlorn and freaked-out cop, but Lawrence is really out of place here; whenever she shows up, it’s hard to get past her tours of duty on sitcoms like “Ladies Man” and “Fired Up.” Her turn is too thin, and the role indicates that the Eye brass may be counting on fans’ attraction to familiar faces rather than the project’s inherent scares and lesser-known supporting players.

Rest of the tech credits are tops across the board, highlighted by unruffled pacing from a trio of editors and nice touches from production designer Mark Freeborn. For the 18-49 demo, there is some brief, partial nudity … of people, not wolves.

Wolf Lake

CBS; Wed., Sept. 12; 10 p.m.

  • Production: Filmed in Vancouver by Big Ticket Television in association with CBS Prods. Executive producers, Alex Gansa, Rick Kellard; co-executive producers, Toni Graphia, John Kousakis; producer, Kathy Gilroy-Sereda; director, Bryan Spicer; writers, Gansa, Kellard.
  • Crew: Camera, Barry Donlevy; production designer, Mark Freeborn; editors, Tom Walls, Jeff Hodge, Martha Huntley; casting, Michelle Allen, Debbi Manwiller.
  • Cast: John Kanin - Lou Diamond Phillips Sheriff Matthew Donner - Tim Matheson Sherman Blackstone - Graham Greene Vivian Cates - Sharon Lawrence Tyler Creed - Scott Bairstow Sophia Donner - Mary Elizabeth Winstead Luke Cates - Paul Wasilewski Ruby Wiler Cates - Mia Kirshner Willard Cates - Bruce McGill
  • Music By: